Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

What would a prison tailored to women’s needs and experiences look like?

I served six years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, 2003-2011. The punishment is never over. I accept that. While incarcerated, I learned that most of the women inmates would have done anything to restore justice and pay our debt to society for the chance to reintegrate.

We had inconsequential jobs instead of work that would have benefited the community we harmed. Warehousing is a waste of human resources. Most of the women I served with had a faded circle on the seat of their prison blue jeans from hours and hours of sitting on metal stools.

I was released from prison 8 1/2 years ago, I struggle with employment, civic service, and housing. I isolate, afraid to tell a potential friend about my background and worry that if I do not, and they find out, I have betrayed their trust. My children still hold my feet to the fire. Their trust is won over time. The six years I spent incarcerated are only the beginning of my sentence. I caused harm. I think my sentence was fair. I paroled April Fools Day 2011 to a society that never forgets and rarely forgives. I am still serving on November 8, 2019.

If I can be of service, please let me know and click here.

~ Karen Campbell

Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?
Sherita Alexander in her cell in a “high-level” block at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility for women in San Diego County, Calif. (Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

The Washington Post, Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

By Keri Blakinger October 28, 2019

Lauren Johnson walked into the aging Travis County jail just outside Austin on a sunny Friday in July 2018 and steeled herself. Every time she passed through the door and the smell hit her, it all came rushing back: the humiliation of being shackled while nine months pregnant. The pang of seeing her children from behind a glass barrier. How she’d had to improvise with what little she had, crafting makeshift bras out of the disposable mesh underwear the jail provided. Between 2001 and 2010, she’d been in and out of the facility six times. Altogether, she’d spent about 3½ years of her life incarcerated.

What did they want? How could their experience be improved?

Now she was returning to the jail, eight years after the last time she’d been released. But this time, it was to ask the incarcerated women questions that would’ve been unfathomable to her during her time there: What did they want? How could their experience be improved?

Johnson wore bold prints and her best jewelry that morning, and purposefully doused herself in perfume. She remembered how deprived she’d felt when she was inside; she wanted the women to see and smell the vibrancy of life beyond the razor wire. She sat in a dank jail classroom, surrounded by a dozen or so women wearing dingy uniforms. She told them about her past, then asked about their futures, and the future of the jail that housed them.

Could we work for deodorant?

“Could we work for deodorant?” one woman asked. Like shampoo, conditioner and other basic hygiene supplies, deodorant cost money at the commissary, and the women had no income. There were other problems: They weren’t given bras or tampons (a possible security concern, according to the facility’s medical director). They wanted access to education, and to fresh vegetables. They wanted to see the sunlight more. “Basic f—ing needs,” Johnson told me.

As a criminal justice outreach coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Johnson is part of a committee of six women formed by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in early 2018 to plan a new building, one that aims to set a higher standard for a women’s jail. The current structure is made up of 12 rundown housing units at the correctional complex in Del Valle, a suburb just over seven miles southeast of the pink capitol dome. The buildings on the suburban campus date to the 1980s and are starting to show signs of age, with peeling paint and recurring electrical and plumbing problems. Officials want better space for programs, and the facility isn’t set up to house all the women together. Instead, they’re spread out across five buildings, making it harder to foster a sense of community.

What would a state-of-the-art women’s jail look like?

These were all problems Johnson remembered well, and she walked out the door feeling relieved that she could leave. But she was also brooding about what she’d heard, and how to incorporate the women’s wishes into the sheriff’s office’s reform effort. What would a state-of-the-art women’s jail — one focused on rehabilitation and second chances instead of punishment and retribution, with an eye to women’s specific needs — look like?

TOP LEFT: Perlita Coronado in the general population yard at Las Colinas. TOP RIGHT: Women fold the prison’s laundry. BOTTOM LEFT: Inmates, from left, Ana Rocha, Samantha Gomez and Naomi Rincon in the sewing workshop at Las Colinas, making jumpsuits for inmates across the county. BOTTOM RIGHT: Women landscape the yard. (Photos by Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

The American prison system was built with men in mind

The American prison system was built with men in mind. The uniforms are made to fit male bodies. About 70 percent of the guards are men. The rules are made to control male social structures and male violence. It’s an outgrowth of necessity: Even though the female prison population has grown twice as fast as the male prison population over the past 35 years, about 90 percent of incarcerated adults are men. Pop culture reflected this invisibility, too, until 2013, when the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” brought the struggles of women in prison to millions of viewers.

Men and women have similarly abysmal recidivism rates — five out of six prisoners released from state lockups are arrested again within nine years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — but women are incarcerated for different reasons and bring with them different histories. They’re more likely to commit nonviolent crimes, involving theft, fraud and drugs. They have slightly higher rates of substance abuse than men, are more likely to be the primary caregiver of a young child, and typically earn less money than their male counterparts before getting locked up.

Women often have fewer programming options, such as education and 12-step programs

The system does little to account for such differences. Women tend to pose a lower risk of violence, but they’re still subject to the same classifications as men — so they’re often ranked at a higher security level than necessary, and, as a result, can be blocked from educational and treatment programs. And when violations do happen, they’re often nonviolent offenses, like talking back to a guard. Whereas men might alter their clothes to show gang affiliation, women might do the same for style or fit, yet both could result in disciplinary action. On top of that, women often have fewer programming options, such as education, job training and 12-step programs. This is, in part, a matter of economy of scale. Because there are fewer women in prison, there are fewer rehabilitative and training programs for them.

These are all things I’ve experienced firsthand. Before I became a reporter, I did time. After nearly a decade addicted to drugs, I got arrested in late 2010 with a Tupperware container full of heroin. When I set foot in a county jail in Upstate New York for the first time, I noted the basic inequalities there. Women were offered one volunteer-led 12-step class per week, while men had four. There wasn’t a low-security housing area for women, while there were four for the men. Women couldn’t be “trusties,” meaning the inmates who served as porters and janitors and got extra privileges; men could.

The cellblock toilets were visible from the hallway

The cellblock toilets were visible from the hallway, allowing passing male inmates and guards to see as you sat down to use the bathroom or change a pad. After I was transferred to a state prison, I watched male guards saunter around our dorms, sometimes peering into cells and cubicles as we changed clothes. It was a level of gender-specific shame and humiliation I did not know to expect, and at the time, I had no idea how widespread these sorts of problems were. Now, as a journalist focused on criminal justice, it’s my job to know, and to see the data and patterns behind what I lived. But nine years later, I can still feel a rising blush of embarrassment in my cheeks as I write this.

The women who come in have different issues from men

“The women who come in have different issues from men,” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez told me. “They have abusive backgrounds; they’re mothers; some are pregnant.” When she took over the sheriff’s office in 2017, Hernandez became responsible for the decaying county jail and found it ill-equipped to deal with women’s needs, lacking in everything from on-site women’s health services and supplies to vocational programs aligned with women’s interests. The $97 million building she and her team are planning will be, she hopes, at the vanguard of a growing focus within criminal justice reform known as gender-responsive corrections: the idea that prisons and jails designed for women will net better outcomes, with more stories that end like Johnson’s. “If we’re really focused on reentry and on helping people not come back,” Hernandez says, “we have to change what we’re doing.”

California has already enshrined gender responsivity into law

Although Travis County aims to set an example with a facility made for and run by women, a shift toward gender responsiveness is already playing out in jails and prisons nationwide. Sometimes the changes are small: supplying underwear and tampons or allowing small dignities like makeup and jewelry. Sometimes they’re programmatic shifts, such as offering trauma-informed treatment or women-centered self-help programs. In New York state, a prison nursery program lets a small number of women who give birth while incarcerated keep their babies with them for up to 18 months. In Connecticut, the state’s only women’s prison began a small pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism through a focus on dignity and autonomy. The Harris County jail in Houston opened vocational programs to female inmates for the first time this year. Last year, NPR reported on the newly built Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, where officers are being trained to write fewer tickets, allow the women more freedom, and listen to them, rather than barking orders.

California has already enshrined gender responsivity into law, and the state’s prison system created a Female Offender Programs and Services Office. The legal shift affected only state lockups, but change has come to some county jails, too, including one now considered a gold standard for gender-responsive corrections: Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility, a women’s jail in San Diego County.

You want women to experience what it would be like to live in a community

Las Colinas was a full-scale rebuild, like what Hernandez envisions for the women’s building of her jail on the outskirts of Austin. Jail officials in San Diego didn’t want just a new building; they wanted something state-of-the-art. They called in Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice, an organization that helps advise jails and prisons on how to address women’s needs and treat them better. For two years, she and Barbara Bloom, who co-directs the center, reviewed Las Colinas’s policies and operations, and advised officials on how to improve. They suggested policy tweaks, offered training for the staff and monitored with regular visits to make sure it was implemented properly. “In a jail setting, you want women to experience what it would be like to live in a community in a healthy way,” Covington says. “The majority of women are coming out and living in our communities, and we want people who are good community members.”

That’s the kind of outcome that Hernandez and her team aspire to. “As we did our research about what good stuff is going on in various places, Las Colinas was one that came to the fore,” says Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in criminal justice policy at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the nation’s leading experts on women’s prison issues, who’s also on the planning committee for the Travis County facility. To see what the new Austin jail might become, I visited Las Colinas.

Khadijah Young gets her hair done by Tonia Toomer inside a high-level cellblock at Las Colinas. (Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

A sincere warmth that seems out of place at a county jail

It’s a warm May morning, and I’ve just made it through Las Colinas’s security doors and stepped out into the Santee sun. “Welcome to Las Colinas!” chirps Jessica Barawed, the facility’s reentry supervisor, while motioning across the grassy 45-acre campus. She’s tall and blond, the spirit of a California postcard greeting me with a sincere warmth that seems out of place at a county jail.

There’s a concrete amphitheater for movie nights to my left. Straight ahead, women are landscaping a palm-tree-lined walkway under the gaze of a plaid-shirted horticulture teacher. To my right are dorms with volleyball nets out front and scattered pieces of exercise equipment for the women who’ve earned their way to the prime housing assignments. And surrounding it all — the lime green palo verde trees, the pink-painted utility covers and the 800 women who live here — is a brick wall. The five-year-old, $240 million facility is still a jail, but no razor wire is in sight.

“incentive-based housing” that’s akin to an honors dorm

More than 12,000 women pass through here every year. Although the facility can hold nearly 1,300, the average daily population typically hovers around two-thirds that, including inmates from maximum security all the way down to the “incentive-based housing” that’s akin to an honors dorm. Most of the 24 housing units rely on a direct supervision model, meaning that the officers are stationed in the women’s housing areas instead of separated behind a glass bubble. The idea is that keeping the guards closer will foster better communication with the women they watch, and maybe help prevent conflicts.

Women who have good behavior and a low-enough security level can attend a book club run by a group of female judges; a six-week trauma class; anger management programs; a handful of college courses; and vocational programs that offer certificates in culinary arts, sewing, landscaping and gardening. (The squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers they grow in the facility’s garden are sold at a farmers market for officers.) There’s job-readiness training and a worker on site to act as a liaison with the county’s Child Welfare Services. There’s yoga every Wednesday, theater programs, Thursday meditation classes, soda machines in the dorms and a gourmet-coffee cart — which offers a vocational training certificate for incarcerated workers — available twice a week.

Years of tough reports from inspections

Capt. James Madsen has been with the sheriff’s office for 26 years and is now Las Colinas’s top administrator. He remembers when the jail did little more than warehouse people. It offered 12-step programs, but some officials wanted something that felt more like a college campus and less like a jail. Years of tough reports from inspections helped grease the skids and push forward change. “There was some resistance initially,” Madsen says. “But these folks are going to get out of jail. Do we want people who are still broken coming out into our communities, or do we want to get them better tools? Why can’t we become part of the solution, instead of just keeping things status quo?” After the county built the new facility, assaults inside went down about 50 percent in the first year, he says, adding: “The inmates act differently because we treat them differently.”

A coffee cart and a farmers market never would have occurred to me

To Madsen, the changes have become the new way of life at Las Colinas, but to me, they were almost incomprehensible. I’d never seen a jail like it. As a reporter, I’d done my research and knew what to expect when I arrived on campus; as a former prisoner, I was stunned. If I’d been asked to design a jail, a coffee cart and a farmers market never would have occurred to me — they just weren’t on my radar. But other features felt obvious, and I wondered why they couldn’t be standard for prisons across the board. At Las Colinas, the women have access to unlimited feminine hygiene supplies, including tampons. Unlike at some facilities, they aren’t routinely strip-searched when they walk in the door. The visiting area has a playroom for kids.

On a basic level, some of these shifts are just about treating inmates more humanely and could help usher in changes for inmates of all genders, Covington says. “Here’s what those of us who have focused on women’s services have said for years: If we can get it right for women, we can then turn and get it better for men,” she says. “If you only focus on men, it never seems to get better for women.”

Women at Las Colinas drink coffee while on break from their shift in the laundry room. (Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

Only one-quarter of the women there can access most of the privileges

This kind of programming isn’t cheap: Housing a woman at Las Colinas costs about $240 per day, between $35 and $115 more than at any of the county’s six jails for men. And it’s not available to every inmate. Only one-quarter of the women there can access most of the privileges. For most inmates — those who aren’t in the special dorms for intensive programs or inmate workers — life at Las Colinas is not that different than in a regular jail. The women in the general population units spend much of the day in their cells, typically venturing off the unit only to go to the mess hall, appointments or visitation.

Tabatha Laumer remembers the old Las Colinas, the one before the coffee cart and gardening classes. Her first stay was almost 20 years ago, when she was 17. She was in and out in eight hours and vowed never to return. But a week later, she did. And then she was back again, and again. Sometimes it was just a few hours at a time, when she got picked up for being under the influence. Sometimes it was a couple of weeks for theft. One time, it was six months.

Now she’s in jail for the 29th time

Now she’s in jail for the 29th time, Laumer told me when we met. Twirling wisps of dusty blond hair poking out from behind her ears, she rattles off her litany of past charges like a laundry list of regret: stealing, possession, transporting across the border.

When Laumer was growing up in Oceanside, Calif., her mother worked multiple jobs, so Laumer spent a lot of time with other family members — including a cousin who introduced her to drugs at age 8 or 9. “I didn’t realize it was wrong,” she says. She still did her homework and went to band practice, but she also started smoking pot and took part in crimes for which she never got caught. Over time, it all escalated: There were blurry nights, hard drugs, weeks she wishes she didn’t remember, gangs, robberies and rape.

Once again, Laumer was on her way to Las Colinas.

In between trips to jail, Laumer had bouts of sobriety and held down a handful of jobs: deli manager, 7-Eleven clerk, door-to-door saleswoman. She had two sons, now 14 and 18. She’d start to turn things around and eventually slip up again. At one point, she began running drugs across the Mexican border, not even sure what was in the cars she drove in exchange for a few hundred bucks or a small stash of drugs. When feds caught her at the border in May 2018, they found 14 kilograms of methamphetamine in the trunk where the tire jack should have been. Once again, Laumer was on her way to Las Colinas.

The last time she was here, Las Colinas was a cluster of dark, decaying buildings with rotting floors. There were no college courses or Wednesday night yoga sessions, and limited vocational programs. “This is a really nice facility compared to the old one,” she says. “You’ve got this huge team of counselors, and they offer college, therapy, programs.”

Not having to put your head down every time someone walks by

After she arrived last year, Laumer realized she wanted to change her life. It wasn’t just because of the shift in thinking at Las Colinas, although that certainly helped. At the old Las Colinas, inmates had to keep their hands in their pockets while they walked and turn to the side if an officer passed. Those are no longer rules, she says: “Not having to put your head down every time someone walks by — it makes us feel like we’re worthy. Not just another number.”

This time around, Laumer earned a slew of certificates, got A’s in college classes, and performed in a San Diego theater company’s renditions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Somewhere during it all, she realized she’d spent years letting her life tick away. “I’m too old for this,” she says. “I’m 37 and I got nothing. But I’m not dead yet.”

TOP LEFT: Tabatha Laumer visits with her sons, ages 14 and 18, in the visiting area of Las Colinas. There is a no-touch rule in the visiting area, except for mothers with very small children. TOP RIGHT: Laura Mejia threads Angelina Ballon’s eyebrows inside a high-level cellblock. BOTTOM LEFT: Inmates play cards featuring unsolved crimes. BOTTOM RIGHT: Elizabeth Cuevas receives her culinary diploma. (Photos by Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

Trauma is the common denominator

Trauma is the common denominator underlying the life experience of the vast majority of female inmates, and trauma-informed care is a key piece of the gender-responsive approach. More than half of female prisoners are survivors of physical or sexual violence; 73 percent of female state inmates and 61 percent of female federal inmates have mental health problems. (Many men in prison have experienced trauma, too, but incarcerated women are more likely to have been through trauma than their male counterparts.) Corrections officials are starting to recognize this, but intensive programs that treat trauma are not nearly common enough.

Trauma-informed care often includes cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of counseling that challenges negative thoughts and the behaviors they lead to. But the approach is more than just a programmatic shift, Deitch says. Trauma-informed care “is a mind-set that infuses everything about how a jail or prison operates, as well as the programs offered in the facilities,” she says. “It’s about staff recognizing that the vast majority of women in custody have extensive histories of trauma, and that this history affects the women’s behavior, thoughts and bodies. It’s about training staff on communication methods and disciplinary approaches that are most effective with women, given this history. It’s about helping women learn to self-regulate their emotional responses and defuse tense situations and helping them become more resilient.”

Women that are coming into the jail have been hurt and traumatized

In the 100-page report that Deitch’s committee created for the Travis County rebuild, trauma-informed treatment is mentioned more than three dozen times. “Women that are coming into the jail have been hurt and traumatized and don’t see value in themselves, don’t see value in others, and they stay in a vicious cycle,” Hernandez told me. “You have to address their trauma so you can redirect them and help them get back into society effectively.”

The gender-responsive approach is still gathering steam in the criminal justice world, so there’s not much research to support its efficacy. A 2016 meta-analysis in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior looked at a few dozen existing studies and cited research that gender-responsive programs are at least as successful as gender-neutral interventions and more successful for women whose past criminal behaviors were specifically linked to gendered issues. But even if gender-responsive interventions don’t directly reduce recidivism, Deitch says, they’re still a vital step toward a more humane corrections system. And lower recidivism rates are not the only marker of success. “The first goal is to do no harm,” she says. “Hopefully, we end up with better results. But that doesn’t have to be our first objective.”

The new jail won’t have bolted-down furniture, clanging doors, metal bars or congregate showers

Hernandez and her team have advocated tirelessly for the new Austin facility, along with the budget to implement it, and it’s wending its way through the approval process. If everything comes out as the committee hopes, the new jail won’t have bolted-down furniture, clanging doors, metal bars or congregate showers. “If a particular feature is not something that most people living outside a jail setting routinely experience in their daily lives,” the report says, “it should raise serious questions about whether it is essential in this facility.” They plan to prioritize privacy, with single rooms where possible (no bunk beds, reads the report, because “adults do not sleep in bunk beds”). The toilets should have lids, and the women should have access to laundry areas. They’ve planned for a breast-feeding room, natural light, no long-term segregation, and recreation areas with yoga mats and bicycles.

A jail is a jail, and they didn’t want any new ones

From the outset, the most outspoken opponents have not been tight-pursed elected officials, but rather criminal justice reform advocates and activist community members. A jail is a jail, and they didn’t want any new ones. “Some of those buildings are old and need repair, and I get that piece,” says Annette Price, interim co-director of GrassRoots Leadership in Austin, who served prison time in Illinois. “But to me, more jails and prisons is not the answer.” She’d prefer to see more diversion programs to keep people out of jail, she says. Like Lauren Johnson, Price was part of the jail advisory committee; she knows incarcerated women often aren’t able to receive the programming, medical care and treatment they need. “But building a jail is not going to solve that.”

Lakyesha Jenkins calls home from a high-level cellblock. (Brian L. Frank for The Washington Post)

Johnson understands those misgivings, even if the changes themselves are positive. As someone who spends her life fighting mass incarceration, she finds it hard to stomach the idea of supporting a new jail, no matter how bad the current one is. “Ultimately, I’d like to see us not incarcerating so many people,” she says. “But [given] the amount of trauma most of these women have encountered in their lives, having something that is built to their needs is so important. People don’t transform their lives when they’re being dehumanized.”

When you’re stuck in the system, it can be hard to envision anything better

When you’re stuck in the system, it can be hard to envision anything better — especially if you don’t think you deserve it. A harsh system and a history of trauma can make it easy to believe you don’t, just like the women Johnson talked to when she visited on that hot July day, who asked for the smallest of changes. I saw those same tensions playing out at Las Colinas, too. As I sat in the mess hall with the inmate workers during a lunch break, they griped a little about the bad conditions and shared their doubts about the good ones. So much freedom is “weird,” said 28-year-old Isabel Mendoza. “It creeps me out.”

If I hadn’t done time, this probably would surprise me. But it’s the sort of self-flagellating catchphrase of penitence my fellow inmates and I would repeat. “This isn’t the Hilton,” we’d say. “If you don’t like the accommodations, don’t make the reservations.” We knew we shouldn’t have to beg for tampons or offer sexual favors — as I saw women do when I was locked up — for more toilet paper. But many of us suffered from a kind of internalized oppression: No matter what we thought about self-worth and second chances, it seemed that, on some level, a lot of us didn’t really believe we deserved to be treated decently. Being yelled at, degraded and told we’d lost the right to expect more from life was what so many of us thought jail had to be.

Maybe I’ve grown up a little bit

As I walked the grounds at Las Colinas, I wondered if its focus on women could make a lasting difference. There are so many other factors that keep people out of jail: privileges like stable housing, money, family support. But being surrounded by people invested in our futures — college teachers, counselors, mentors — could have helped some of us. The sheer number of times some of my friends bounced in and out of jails and prisons seemed testament enough to the fact that being treated as something less than a human certainly wasn’t working. I shared these thoughts with Laumer. “As nice as it is, I don’t want to come back,” she said. “Maybe I’ve grown up a little bit.”

The women in Laumer’s dorm were sitting in front of the building, playing cards on a picnic table. Laumer was running the show, dealing out a hand of spades — the card game of choice in jails everywhere. It was barely 8 a.m. and the cluster at the table was positively giddy, joking about making a Las Colinas-themed hip-hop album as Drake played on a radio in the background.

Make your days count

I knew I was seeing only a small slice of these women’s lives, but Laumer and her friends didn’t seem quite as miserable as the women I saw in so many other corrections facilities. “Don’t count your days,” they say, riffing on a quote usually attributed to Muhammad Ali. “Make your days count.” No one said that when I did time. Maybe it was just a show, or a fleeting, out-of-character moment. But as I watched them howl an out-of-key rendition of “We Are the Champions,” I hoped so much that it was all real.

Keri Blakinger is a criminal justice reporter for the Houston Chronicle. She served 21 months of a 2½-year sentence for felony drug possession.

Brian L. Frank is a California-based documentary photographer focusing on criminal justice, social inequality, violence, workers’ rights and the environment. As a juvenile, he served multiple stints in San Francisco Juvenile Hall for assault and robbery.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.

Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

Can We Build a Better Women’s Prison?

“There is nothing else I can do.”

There is nothing else I can do

There is nothing else I can do

I am a living miracle. I broke over twenty bones in the accident., including my face and teeth. I lacerated my spleen and GI tract, bladder and punctured a lung. I was put back together in a trauma hospital. The surgeries began on the night  the helicopter arrived on the roof  of the hospital and continued for days afterward. The medical file was Bible thick.

“There is nothing else I can do.”

The next series of surgeries were performed by the orthopedists. They reconstructed my back and pelvis and placed an external fixation device into and around my hips. I had seen similar contraptions around people’s head and neck called a halo. This was a hip halo of gigantic proportions. It held my broken china bones in place in hopes that I would fuse together.

Took three of them to get me out of bed

A team from Rehab, my own people, came one day to get me out of bed. It took three of them. They lowered the bed rail and inch by inch, like a glacier, I swiveled toward the edge. I did my best to push through my elbows to keep my upper body lined up with my legs. But it was hard with broken ribs, a feeding tube, a catheter and a bag hanging out of my lung. We moved together as a team, every inch was hard won. We were almost to the edge of the bed, my legs were diagonal and not yet squared up to a sitting position.

One of the therapists got impatient and grabbed the bed pad and yanked

One of the therapists got impatient and grabbed the bed pad and yanked, twisting my lower body all the way to the edge, my torso turned in the opposite direction. I screamed in pain, I almost blacked out. What I didn’t know was that the twisting motion had destroyed the surgery.  My first attempts out of bed were excruciating, but I knew I had to walk.

Once discharged from the rehab unit, my medical care was transferred to an Orthopedist at the hospital where I worked. He was a skier too and he had heard about my accident. He walked into the exam room and took in the spectacle of me: an emaciated woman at 5′ 9”, 115 pounds, in a hip halo using a platform walker for a casted wrist. He grunted, shook his head sympathetically and turned to the X-rays on the light board.

I heard phrases like, “Totally displaced, painful ambulation, pubic bone dislodged…”

At first glance, he recoiled and then tried to compose himself. His arms hung at his sides, I heard him exhale in huffs. He just kept looking at the images, leaning in or pulling away, saying nothing. He turned, his face was grim, “I’ll be right back.” He returned with another Orthopedist and they muttered in front of the X-Rays for several minutes. I heard phrases like, “Totally displaced, painful ambulation, pubic bone dislodged, is it poking into the bladder? A fall would be lethal.” At last, they turned to me. The second surgeon averted his eyes. He looked at his colleague, his lips in a thin line, put a hand on his shoulder and walked out of the room.

He placed his head in his hands

My Orthopedist sat down hard on a small black stool in the corner of the room. He placed his head in his hands for several seconds. When he looked up, his eyes were red and shiny. “It’s ruined. The surgery is ruined. Your right side is an inch and a half higher than your left, there is torsion at your spine, your pubic bones are out of place.” He paused, his face set in purpose. “There are only two of us in the United States who would ever go back into your pelvis.” He thought some more and shuddered.

The outcomes could be worse

“The outcomes could be worse.” He stared into my eyes, “You are going to live with a great deal of discomfort. Your life will be limited. You can never fall. No one will fix you.” We sat in silence. Then he continued, “Did you fall in the hospital? Do you remember twisting somehow?”

I told him about the twisting bed blanket incident in the hospital. “I assumed that I would be in pain anytime I tried to move.”

How much will it hurt to take them out?”

Still seated on the stool, he bent his head and raked his nails through his scalp, then he sat up suddenly, angry. “That’s not doing you any good,” he waved his long arm at my hip halo. He stood up and walked over to the exam table. “I can schedule a surgery, give you a little sedation and pull those rods out.”

“How much will it hurt to take them out?”

“What kind of pain are you already in?”

I shrugged, “I don’t think that pain scale really applies to me anymore if it did, I’d never be up walking.”

“I can take them out right here, right now.”

“Do it.”

There is nothing else I can do.

I laid back on the table. He dismantled the cross bars then met my eyes, “I’ll start on your so-called good side.” With a few turns, he unscrewed the first of four. It felt like he was pulling out my bone marrow. It made a squishy sucking sound. “OK?”

I nodded.

He quickly removed the next three seven inch rods. It felt like the part of my soul was clinging to the rods and left my body. I lay panting, looking at the ceiling tile.

The doctor walked back to the stool, rolled to the desk and got out a prescription pad, “I want you to see one of your fellow PT’s for a while,” he turned and looked at me, he looked traumatized.

“There is nothing else I can do.”

Four months after the accident, I was still in an arm cast.

Four months after the accident, I was still in an arm cast. I had begun walking slowly in my own around the house and using the walker for short trips out of the house. Then two things happened that moved life forward very quickly. First, I received a letter stating that my medical insurance would be canceled if I did not return to work in thirty days. Second, my lawyers informed me that in Oregon, a mandatory minimum prison  sentence was inevitable. It was just a matter of how long I would serve. Like the scene from Forrest Gump where he runs out of his leg braces, I ditched the walker and ramped up my rehab. I got busy training for prison.

There is nothing else I can do

There is nothing else I can do

Karen Campbell's Writing Blog

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone. It has been sixteen years. I miss the simple things: his soft rumbly voice, his silver and turquoise. Most of all, I miss coming home after work, my final trudge up the steps to the porch, and within seconds, the sound of his recliner slamming to upright, the running footsteps and the dog toenails across the wooden floor, the door flung open, man and dog, his wingspan, his smile, “Honey! You’re home!” He never got tired of it. If Tom had his way, he would like to be remembered as the best skier, kayaker, a Mountain Rescue Agent, and Grateful Dead fan that ever lived. He loved his pals and his Golden Retriever. He loved me.

Tom was the shy twin

Tom was a twin to a shining star brother, he was the shy twin. He told me as a little boy, he hid in the closet when a baby sitter came and stayed there until she left. “Otherwise, we were hellions, my twin, my little brother and me. My poor mother.” He laughed at the memory and shook his head. “I was a little funny. I was smart but I had a hard time concentrating.” Tom got off track as a teenager. He told me he began experimenting with recreational drugs. He signed up for the Navy to get straightened out.  I still can not believe Tom is gone

Ichabod Crane

One day, I went looking for him out in his toy trailer. I found him behind motorcycles, boats, skis and camping equipment, digging though some old boxes. He was chuckling and shaking his head, holding an old photo album. “Gee, I don’t know if you wanna see this, but here I am as a Navy cadet.” he shyly passed the album open to a picture of skinny young man with a sharp Adam’s apple and Coke bottle glasses. Ichabod Crane, oh sweetheart.

The Navy quickly discovered his genius with electronics and made him an engineer on an aircraft carrier. His duty was to go up in a navigation plane, equipped with an early GPS system and keep track of the fighter pilots. After the navy, he became a whiz for companies like Intel installing enormous computer systems.

In his thirties Tom swanned into a beautiful man

When Tom was in his late thirties he had laser eye surgery, ditched his thick glasses and swanned into a beautiful man. He was quick to laugh and quick to brag good-naturedly: “Enough about me, what do you think of me?” On anyone else, it would be tedious, but he was tickled with himself. People couldn’t help but like him, I couldn’t help but love him.

Tom did not die instantly in the accident. I discovered his last minutes by reading the accident report. He was shouting for help. He was worried about me: “I’m crushing her! She can’t breathe.” Was he aware of the extent of his injuries? Was he lucid in his final moments? I wish I could have comforted him. Was he afraid? Did he know he was dying? My guts tell me he would have been surprised. What? This isn’t in the plan, I have more to do!

I couldn’t bear the guilt, the shame

My family spared me the details for several months after the accident. They were right, it was almost too much to bear. But once I was in prison, I couldn’t keep the thoughts from swirling. I couldn’t bear the guilt, the shame. I walked miles of circles day after day on the prison yard until my mind went quiet. But they would start up again, always. I was haunted by images of the accident. I pictured him crushed up against me shouting for help, then the rescue with the jaws of life, and his final moments, lying on gurney, the ground? I imagined his face as he succumbed and the pose of a body no longer inhabiting his beautiful free spirit. My fault, my fault. I lived in a cage of self condemnation, my own prison.

The prison yard swirled from tears

I remember one early Summer morning at yard, six months into my sentence, I was the sole walker. Through the fences lines I could see the distant hillside turning green. At least I am alive to see it. I thought of Tom. The prison yard swirled from tears. Suddenly in a supernatural flash, I saw him. He was standing before me, in his ski clothes, staring intently, leaning his head toward mine.

“What are you doing?” His expression was a little teasing and a little impatient.

I didn’t deny this was happening. It was real. I felt him, I heard his voice. “You’re not mad at me?” I asked in my mind.

“Don’t waste a day! I wouldn’t. Be happy.”

I laughed, out loud. I felt a wave of warmth and he was gone. I could grieve now. The door of the cage was open.

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three

Cell Etiquette

“Roll up, Baker,” barked the Guard. “You’re movin’ to down the row to 113.” He turned away and clomped back to the podium. The Department of Corrections (DOC) moved women around like chess pieces. This would be my third cellmate in three months.  Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

I was nervous as I packed my plastic bags wondering who my new cell mate would be. I dragged my bags to a new cell, the familiar hiss of plastic bags followed me down the row on the first floor. I stopped four doors down, in front of cell 113 and waited for  the guard to call the Bubble and order the cell door open. All eyes in the dayroom were on me. I didn’t know which was worse, staring out at the crowd or turning to see just who was in that cell.

I recognized this woman

The door rolled open. A young black woman was pacing inside, I apologized for coming into her space, “Sorry. I’m your new cellmate.” She shrugged her shoulders,

“Ain’t no extra beds, prison’s full.”

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell EtiquetteI recognized this woman. I’d overheard her talking in the dayroom about being an exotic dancer. It was the first time I had been this close to a woman who made her living by taking off her clothes. She walked to the window and looked out at the dayroom, allowing me space to unpack. It did not take long to unpack. Clothes in one tank box, coffee and creamer in the next, toothbrush on the shelf. I quickly made the lower bed and climbed into my bunk, slumping against the wall.

My new cellmate resumed her pacing.

“What you in for?” She asked.

Manslaughter II/DUI Car Accident

I gave her the speech: Man II/DUI car accident. Seventy five months, no good time.

She nodded her head and seemed satisfied. “I am here for fighting. I got mittens.” She held up her fists. She looked down at her balled up hands and tucked them under her armpits, like she had to place them in a safe, locked place. Then she turned away and leaned on the wall, gazing out the cell window. “I been down about a year. Crimes up in here be all over the place. A lot of cluster fuck robberies for drugs, lots of I.D theft and murder. As long as you ain’t in here for a child crime, we’ll get along O.K.”

I took in her frame as she faced outward. She was short and curvy. Her waist was tiny, like a corset, then blossomed into a round rump. My God, you could set a tea cup on that thing. I bet she can kick too. I just kept staring at her well muscled arms and balled up fists. I could feel my heart beating.

“What’s your name?”


“You ain’t never been in prison before, have you Kaaren?” She drew out my name.

“No.” I hoped that was the right answer.

“Uh huh.”

Livin’ in a cell means you gotta take care of yourself, not let yourself go

She didn’t tell me her name. We all could see the last name on our I.D.’s. They were on the lanyards around our neck, but the last name was what the cops called us.   

She resumed pacing. She stopped at the mirror and turned her head side to side to check her face and hair. She was exotic, like her profession. She had large black eyes and a pouty bottom lip. “Livin’ in a cell means you gotta take care of yourself, not let yourself go. If you look a hot mess, all the nasty stank of a women’s prison is gonna be blamed on you.” She did not make eye contact but went back to pacing, like a school teacher.  “Make an attempt. You gotta shower every day, change your shirt and underwear, wear deodorant, brush you teeth. Don’t be sneezin’ and coughin’ all over the cell. Pick up after yourself. Don’t put wet clothes in your laundry bag.”

“Okay.” I said meekly, like a child. But my new cellmate was about 19, 20 at the most. I wondered who taught her this stuff. Did she learn from other inmates or did she have a mother who taught her the basics of personal care?

Ain’t nobody gonna wanna live with a thief

“Never, never touch my stuff. I will share if you need it, but if you be touchin’ and taking peoples’ property, you gonna do some hard time. Ain’t nobody gonna wanna live with a thief.” She went back to the window. She said all this matter of fact. Not mean, not threatening. I was actually relieved. At least we had some ground rules and I knew she would tell me what I needed to learn. I did not want to meet those mittens. I planned on walking out through the fences of prison with all my teeth.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell EtiquetteShe stopped pacing, faced me, mittens on hips, “One last thing, Kaaren, anyone taught you a courtesy flush?”


“When you gotta take a crap, you gotta sit all the way back on that cold ass toilet seat and make a booty seal with yo’ ass. Then you flush. It be cold.” She shook her head,

“You might have to flush more than once. You do what it takes cuz no one wants to be smelling your shit.”

“Okay!” I’m sure my eyes were the size of dinner plates. My God I just met this person and she’s telling me how to have a bowel movement. I had no idea there was prison etiquette for poop.

The doors of the cell opened for line movement and she went out into the dayroom, no goodbye, no backward glance. The lecture was over. I watched her round black bottom moving through the tables in a staccato beat: boompity, BOOM, boompity BOOM, the booty seal queen.

The prison spent good money on a powerful plumbing system

While she was gone I brushed my teeth, sniffed my pits, and gave myself a little bird bath. I reviewed the protocol of a proper booty seal: sit all the way back on the seat, and use my legs in the gaps. The prison spent good money on a powerful plumbing system. A back up would be unthinkable. The stainless toilets were connected to an enormous cavern of plumbing tunnels so when you flushed, the noise was like the call of the dinosaurs. Here goes. Whoo-eee! It was a blast from the arctic tundra, and moist. I stood and checked, I had a tender butt hickey but everything went down, matter, tissue and odor. Small price to pay for peace.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two


During the confinement of count time or lights dim, Mittens and I began to share our personal histories. It was like chess. Each of us placed a fact on the table and watched the other’s reaction. I told her about the accident and Tom. She wasn’t overly sympathetic. I was met with this reaction in nearly every telling of my story. Despite killing my husband and another woman in the car accident, the reaction to my crime was just the same old story. It didn’t feel that way to me. 

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two

“I loved him,” I admitted, “but he scared me. He was a pretty, pretty man, a dead ringer for Sam Elliot, dimples and all. He was a wild, adorable lush. I didn’t say no. That was my fault. On the days my daughters were with their dad, I waded in to whatever extreme sport came up—boating, skiing, mountain climbing. I was the chick who hung out with the dudes. There was a lot of tailgating. All the guys smoked weed. We all drank.  My life was out of control.”

She was underwhelmed by my story

She sighed and shook her head. She was underwhelmed by my story. Mine was a suburban mom crime, a luxury crime of selfishness. I was not stealing to eat or hooking to buy groceries for my kids. But I was the opposite when she began to talk about her violent childhood. There was drug addiction and poverty. “My little brother and I use to put water on our cereal. Sometimes it was the only food in the house.” I pictured Nikki and Haley going to school hungry. How old was she?

“teach” about life in prison

Between sharing our stories, my new cellmate continued to pace and “teach” about life in prison. My next lesson was hookers. She shrugged her shoulders. “I take the money both on and off the stage.” Then she walked to the window and turned her attention to another woman. “See that one by the call-out board? Girl ain’t go no game. She thinks she’s all that, but she ain’t nothing but a flat backer.” She stayed at the window and kept looking at her, “I know God don’t like that blue eyeliner. Umph.” Then she walked back to my bunk and turned her pretty peepers at me, “Girl’s a mess, Kaaren.”

What’s a Flatbacker?

I laughed. “O.K., I’ll bite, what’s a flatbacker?”

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two“Flatbacker is a hooker who actually has to lay down to get paid. Their last known address is the back seat of a Coupe de Ville behind the Waffle House. They hit the top of the skankometer. They do a quick P.T.A., that’s a pussy tits and ass in the sink at the Shell gas station between clients. There’s girls like me that dance. Sometimes I just go with someone to let them do what they do. One man pays me to watch him dress up in women’s clothes.”

I laughed and leaned forward. She was on a roll. “I’m good at it. I tell him, ‘Oh no! Those shoes are all wrong with that dress, you gotta start over, and wear the right bra and panty set.’”

And I thought I had held some odd jobs.

The Primo Hooker

“The primo hooker is the call girl, a top dolla ho. Call girls look down on corner girls. We have a call girl in the honor dorm. They call her Helen of Troy. One of her Johns was murdered, she was in the room, so she went down.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two
AKA Helen of Troy

She’s prime pussy, even pretty on prison. I’ll point her out at yard. Just watch her walk, all lady-like. Girl raise a jealous ruckus alright, make straight girls go gay and fighters see red.”

“Do you make a lot of money dancing and, you know, the other stuff?” I asked.

“Listen, not everyone’s meant for the game. Why should I wear some paper hat in stand in grease all day? I can make a whole day’s wages in ten minutes. Kaaren, your Tom? Girl, you ain’t falling in love with the right things.

Do you understand Unlimited Visa?

I know I’m gonna fall in love with a Bentley and a trip to the Poconos, and a pink diamond. Eat your heart out J-Lo. Do you understand Unlimited Visa?” She took up the pacing, checking her money-maker body in the mirror. “I don’t care if he’s Arabian, White, Native. If he’s got no teeth, I’d bake his cake and put it in the blender. I’ll just keep my jewelry and the Land Rover with the leather interior. That’s the truth. Ain’t no shame in the game.” She was theatrical but now she stopped before me and said very seriously, “When you grow up eating breakfast cereal with water, what cha gonna do?”

“I can’t imagine. You had to be pretty strong from the get-go, didn’t you?”

“I’m a survivor Kaaren.”

“I have never heard a story like yours, except on Oprah or in a book.”


“You’re a natural born storyteller.”

She liked that, looked at herself in the mirror.

You have a lot to teach a woman like me

“You have a lot to teach a woman like me. I’d like to write down some of the things you just said. Is that O.K.? I think I might write a book and let me tell you, you would be a star.”

“A book? Somebody gotta do that, OK?”

I reached for paper. “OK, let’s go back to the beginning, the hookers, then you said something like ‘why should I wear a paper hat and stand around in grease all day?’

Her hard life stories and lessons continued into the days and nights.  She encouraged me to write. She would even slow down and repeat things so I could get the direct quotes.  She did a good job of telling a lively story, but I could hear the hurt and disappointment in her life and the pride that covered up the damage. I felt the stirring of tenderness for this girl, but kept a watchful eye on those mittens.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Some of my childhood memories of alcohol

In my family alcoholism, and its darkness, runs rampant and destructive as a river in full flood. As a child, my small ears listened deep as my father berated my mother. My dad’s cronies backed me into corners with lechery in their eyes as words I didn’t understand, but felt creep across my skin like ice, came from their mouths. I watched my oldest brother strangled into unconsciousness. His skull was fractured, ribs broken. He had seizures for years after. It was my brother who was shamed for being beaten, never my father for getting blackout drunk and trying to kill him—repeatedly.  Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead.

 Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead
Stephanie K. Nead

These are some of my childhood memories of alcohol. No laughing easy times, no fun and games. Deadly serious. My mother was forever worried. We children lived in fear.

Many years later, I met Karen. She was my physical therapy assistant. I loved her kindness, creativity,  deep caring and awesome sense of humor. Amidst busy lives, we were becoming friends. In one of our casual chats, Karen mentioned she was writing on the topic of drunk driving. Assuming that she too had been hurt by a drunk, I let fly with my gut response, something akin to “The tragedy is the drunk survives while everyone else dies! Should be the other way around.” Karen became very, very quiet. 

After that day, while friendly, kind and helpful, Karen was professional and distant. I knew I’d hurt her but had no idea exactly how. 

Then one day, years later, came Karen’s first blog post for her book. Karen, my wonderful Karen, had been the drunk driver in an accident that claimed the life of her husband and the other driver, and left her two daughters without their mother and step-father when she went to prison. I could not imagine the courage it took to invite everyone in the world to read her story. I was awestruck. I wrote her. I apologized for judging and hurting her. I also explained that my knee-jerk response arose out of my childhood experience with alcoholics. Karen responded with grace and curiosity. We corresponded and she invited me to write this piece.

I’d heard Karen speak of her husband, what a gorgeous, glorious rogue he was, her eyes sparkling with love. I knew she had daughters and I knew those relationships had their struggles, but what mother-daughter relationship doesn’t? I never imagined the nerve I hit when I “went off” on Karen. She was one of “them?!” Ah, can we never escape the us and them? A lesson for me in empathy. As it turned out, Karen, like me, was hurt by a drunk driver. That person just happened to be herself. She was and is exactly all I’ve known her to be, yet she is human and made a horrible mistake that took two lives and irrevocably changed many more. 

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. NeadWhen I was in college, my dad, drunk, hit a car filled with a mother and four children. He tried to get sober then. His voice quavered as he told me, “When I lost control and saw my car moving into them, all I could see was your mother and you kids.” He tried to quit. I know he really wanted to, but he was one of those drunks the Big Book of AA refers to when it says “…some won’t quit, some can’t quit.” My dad couldn’t. 

A lifelong atheist, at the end of his life my dad turned to Catholicism. I hope, for his sake, that by the time he died he felt he was forgiven for the things he did, even those he might not have fully remembered. I also know that for the rest of us the damage was done. It is a legacy I have had to live with and resolve. I always will. Just as Karen’s girls will live their lives with the legacy of the night their parents got into a car and drove drunk. 

What I’ve learned is that holding onto judgment does no one any good. To be honest, some of my childhood memories still make me feel angry. Forgiveness doesn’t come overnight or all at once. It’s bits and pieces. With effort and time, forgiveness and healing deepen. Holding onto my wounds and my pain only leads me to hurt others who have suffered their own faults and paid their own price. They do not deserve the burden of my anger and judgment. 

What Karen shares in this book are many stories like her own — of people doing their best in life, making huge, horrifying, irrevocable mistakes that destroy their own lives and change forever the landscape of multiple lives and hearts. They do not deserve my wrath. We can comfort each other or condemn each other, but either way, we are all in this together. We have all been the wounded and the wounding. Most of us are mostly good. None of us is perfect. We all deserve forgiveness.  Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Stephanie K. Nead

Sequim, WA 2019

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Guest Blog by Stephanie K. Nead

Fights in a Women's Prison

Fights in a Women's Prison

Fights in a Women’s Prison

I witnessed my first violent fight, just ten feet away. Hippie Chick and I were circling the yard. On the opposite side, Helen of Troy, the fancy call girl was walking with her girlfriend. From a distance, we could hear her girlfriend shouting. Helen of Troy kept her head down and walked close to the fence line. She looked frightened.  Fights in a women’s prison are frightening.

Girlfriend is a mean motherfucker

Hippie Chick shivered. “Dude, my cellmate, Angry Girlfriend is a mean motherfucker. If she don’t like you, you gotta worry about it, and she don’t like me. I am only in that cell when I have to be. She’s jealous of anyone who talks to Helen of Troy. Those two argue constantly, then she bitches about it to me.” We walked slower, keeping our distance.  “Sounds like she’s had some pretty fucked up relationships, lots of domestic violence.” 

As we turned the corner, Hippie Chick stopped walking and turned to me. “I used to fight. I saw red when I fought. I blacked out and kept on fighting.” Does everyone fight in here? We preceded in silence.

“I used to love it. Fuckin’ scares me.” Tears spilled down her cheeks. “I don’t ever want to do that again.” She wiped the tears with the heels of her hands.

Oh shit, Karen. I don’t like it.

We were circling closer to the argument between Helen of Troy and Angry Girlfriend. “Oh shit, Karen. I don’t like it.” We were about ten feet away. There was a third girl involved, it looked like a lover’s triangle.

Fights in a Women's Prison“You stay away from my girl, bitch.” Girlfriend shouted.

“I guess I’ll talk to who ever I want.” the third girl countered.

That’s all it took. Suddenly, right in front of us, Angry Girlfriend started to swing. We froze in our tracks. This wasn’t bitch-slapping and hair-pulling. It was pummeling. The third girl fell on the second punch. We tried to scoot back but were blocked by the instant crowd of spectators gathering in sick fascination. The loser was on her back, Angry Girlfriend kneeled over her and just kept on swinging. The only sound was fist and face. Blood flew through the air in chunks, not droplets, maybe it held some teeth or a chunk of cheek. It seemed like an eternity, someone beside me puked. Finally the alarm, whoop, whoop, whoop. The cops dragged Angry Girlfriend off the unconscious woman, her face sweating with rage. They cuffed Angry Girlfriend and Helen of Troy and led them away. Then they loaded the wounded woman into a wheelchair and wheeled her off the yard.

I never knew women were capable of fighting like men

I was shaken. I never knew women were capable of fighting like men, it was like the fighting scenes in a Tarantino movie, only this was in swinging distance, not on a movie screen.

“Why are they taking the girl on the ground?” I called out. “She never even swung. Helen of Troy was just standing there.” A girl in the crowd next to us said,

“They take ’em all. They figure if you’re playin’ with fire, you’re burnt.”

“I am just glad it wasn’t me.” said Hippie Chick. 

I wanted answers. Why do women fight and who taught them to swing like that?” Mittens would know.

My prison survival strategy: Run, Scream and Hide may not be enough.

“Most of the fights in here are between cellies.” My head jerked up, she did not see my alarm. She was pacing, “You don’t have to get all Clint Eastwood and pull a publicity stunt, yellin’ at your roommate. That’s punk ass shit. Just put a lock in sock and get it over with, uh-huh.” Just when I was feeling comfortable with her. I watched her powerful body pace back and forth, I looked at her arms. What did I expect? This was the information I was seeking after the fight at yard. My prison survival strategy: Run, Scream and Hide may not be enough.

I learned to fight from men

“For some of us, fighting is a way of life.” I looked at Mittens as she was trying out hair-do’s in the tiny mirror. I wondered if she was beaten as a child in her own home. As though she was reading my mind she continued, “Yep,” she drawled as she put grease on her hair and wrestled it into high pony tail, her exotic eyes slanted upward. She stopped and stared into her reflection.

Fights in a Women's Prison“Our mama’s fought, we fight. I learned to fight from men. One day I got in trouble in school. The principle called me down to the office. He chewed me out and told me he was going to call my mother. I laughed and told him, “You can lecture me as much as you want. I’ll listen. But, you do not want to mess with my mother. She gets mad. It ain’t safe.”

She went back to pacing without looking at me. When she continued, it was in a soft voice. “My dad didn’t trust women. One time he got so mad, he took it out on me, held me down by the back of my neck and made me eat food out of a dog dish, he yellin’ at me, ‘all you women are bitches.’” Mittens stopped pacing and looked in the mirror. She picked up her comb and just stared at it in her hand. I was quiet, I kept my eyes down to give her privacy. I imagined that scene with her young head over a dog dish, kneeling on the floor. How old was she? How did she get through it?

I was taught to square off and box. I’m fast.

Mittens went back to pacing, this time with purpose as to shake off the memory. She stopped in front of my bunk and held up her fists, “I was taught to square off and box. I’m fast.” She feigned a fast fury of fist work. “I use my hands, legs, and any object I need.” She was grinning, then the smile slid away and she went back to her perch at the window, “It’s gotten me in a lot of trouble, I’ve broken legs.” She was quiet, I waited. “I re-broke the same leg. That’s why I am here. I can’t fight ever again. I ain’t never coming back here.” She stared out window and said in a breaking voice, “I can’t come back here.”

Our cell was quiet the rest of the night. I held back my questions and let the violence rest. How could I make a safety plan living in a closet with another full grown adult who had such a violent history? How could this young girl ever learn to trust anyone?

Fights in a Women's Prison

Fights in a Women’s Prison

Fights in a Women’s Prison

Lowdown on Sex in a Womens Prison Part Two

The Low Down on Prison Sex Part Two

The Low Down on Prison Sex

Part Two

Day 91

(Please read Part One)

Sitting with the group of women at the dayroom table I now understood where women inmates had sex, but I still wondered about logistics: how were more of them not caught in the act?

“The only way to have a decent booty call is for someone to count jigs,”  said Twin Two.

“Counting jigs?” I asked.

“It’s kinda a three-way,” Lala said. “Someone stands watch outside the shower, or the broom closet while we knock it out. The girl might be pretending to wash the outside of the shower or load supplies on the janitor cart outside the broom closet.” Lala turned to the girls, “You know they’re gonna watch.” The Twins smirked. Maybe that was a part of the play.

Gay for the Stay, Straight at the Gate

“It’s obvious to anyone in the room what’s goin’ on behind that door. Sometimes I think the cops know but they just don’t want to hassle with the paperwork,” said Leaning Girl. “Sex in prison is just sex,” she shrugged. “The varieties are all over the map.” Lala nodded to The Twins, “You got your lipstick lesbians to full-blown dykes. Gay for the stay, straight at the gate, queer for a year, playin’ house in the Big House, you never know who’s jumpin’ in.”

“Everybody I know from the outside wants the scoop,” said Lala. “They ask if there is a lot of girl-girl action with the wiggly eyebrows. They want the raunchy facts, but mostly, they want to know if I have started playing for the other team.”

Line movement occurred, and just as abruptly as the conversation began, it ended, our “free” time linked to the opening and closing of doors. We quickly gathered ourselves up, meeting adjourned. I went to the cell and wrote down our conversation. Later, I told them I was writing, that I was trying to make sense of our prison lifestyle and all the layers of punishment.

“Fine with me,” said Lala. Someone’s got to make sense of this.”

That Night in My Cell

That night in my cell, I thought about the first days and weeks of my fall. Human frailty is dire in such circumstances. Life occurs hour by hour, day to day. For me, it felt as though I was strictly surviving. Somehow my body breathed, I ate. My daily walk became obedient numbness. I no longer felt the stronger aspects of my personality, I shuffled around the cops, overly apologetic. I feared making a connection with the other women inmates; I missed my family.

I woke up, went to work, called my family. It took such an effort to do so little. My mojo was most definitely not working. Sex was the last thing on my mind.

But Underneath the Bravado

But the Twins, Lala and Leaning Girl were in their late teens and twenties. The nasally, bored DOC instruction for “delayed gratification, girls” is a tough sell for the young and hormonal. They want to feel desirable and act on the cravings of a young body in it’s prime. They shared their stories and bantered back and forth lightheartedly. But underneath the bravado, I knew they were lonely and craved touch and comfort. I admired them. In whatever form, it took courage to hold onto the joys of the human experience and the willingness to love in return.

Lowdown on Sex in a Womens Prison Part Two

Lowdown on Sex in a Womens Prison Part Two

The Low Down on Prison Sex

Looking all the way down into my blackness Karen Campbell Writes

Looking all the way down into my blackness

Looking All the Way Down into My Blackness

Day 21

The word on the Intake unit was, “if you want to get out of your cell, sign up for church.” My parents weren’t church folks; the last time I went to church I was wearing red tights and patent leather shoes. I couldn’t be farther than the innocent girl I had been then. So, what do I have to lose?

That night, I sent a kyte message and two days later was given permission to attend a church service in the prison chapel. But I was doubtful. That night at dinner I asked the women at my meal table what the allure was, besides the chance to get out of their cells?” They all agreed it was also a social activity, a chance for gossip and a chance to check out the women who lived on other units.

I go to cry

“I go to cry,” said Hippie Chick a co-worker from the kitchen. “I check in at the door of the chapel and go straight for the hankies before choosing a seat. I’ve tried to plan a good cry in the shower and end up standing under the trickle, nothing comes out. I turn off the water and keep going.”

“Church is not for me,” Rainy said. Her crime was similar to mine, we were both mothers. “It brings up all my crap. I about lost it the last time I went to church. Then what? Mental Health can’t help me. I don’t want their drugs. I tried taking them and I gained 45 pounds.”

Birdie, with her sharp nose and small mouth said,  “I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I went to parochial school and sang in the choir. It’s good for my mom to know I am going to services, it’s like we are together, going to mass.”

Creator of the universe

“I’m still not sure about the whole church thing,” said LaLa, a bawdy blonde. “But I’m pretty sure the Creator of the universe can handle a little doubt and a few questions.” She brightened, “They play music. It’s loud and they let you stand and dance.”

She was right. That first night, I could hear the music from the corridor. I stepped into the chapel, where the women were standing and singing, the lyrics projected on the wall. The pews were filled with prison blues and Intake scrubs. The women had their heads down or hands in the air, many of them in tears. I had been afraid to cry in prison, afraid I would be seen as prey.

A shipwrecked group of human beings

I walked toward the pews near the front, joining the Intake women. We were a shipwrecked group of human beings; we were at our worst and we knew it. I stood next to Hippie Chick. She was bawling. Through her tears she looked at me and laughed, then sobbed, then laughed again. She cried waves of tears and used her hands as a squeegee. As we sang and listened to the service, she just kept on crying and laughing. I felt safe with her. Maybe church was a safe place to cry.

But I didn’t think I could do it. I distracted myself with the words of the Pastor who spoke in complete sentences of proper English instead of prison slang. I distracted myself with the pews, which were padded and the soft carpet under my feet.

The Pain I Caused

Suppressing emotions for so long,  I didn’t know what would happen if I gave them free reign. The days after the accident were for survival, first to heal the wounds and twenty broken bones, then mentally prepare for a prison sentence. I couldn’t think of everything I’d lost; all the pain I’d caused. Instead, I gave away possessions both Tom’s and mine, I said goodbye to elders I wasn’t sure I would see again, and I said goodbye to my children. And I suppressed the guilt, grief, fear and self-loathing.

Looking all the way down into my blackness Karen Campbell Writes

But sitting in the collective misery of the chapel service, I saw something else besides devastation on the Intake women’s faces. Hippie Chick had her face lifted, her eyes closed. The tears ran down her cheeks but she wasn’t wiping them away anymore. He face was soft, as though she surrendered, no longer imprisoned by her emotions.

I wanted what she had. Do I dare open the door, just a slit? I took a ragged breath and closed my eyes; I felt a stream of emotions: grief, despair, guilt, and revulsion. I saw the faces of my family and Tom. I saw the family members of the woman I killed in the accident. My body collapsed inward as though I might melt where I stood. Deep within, there was warmth in my chest, expanding and growing brighter. The light was like a passageway to something greater. Karen. It was an invitation. Let it go.


Then I panicked. My eyes snapped open. I did not deserve grace and love. No, I didn’t deserve forgiveness. If I let go and let God in, I would have to be truthful. I would have to look all the way down into my blackness. What if I could not crawl out of that pit?

I was not ready.

Looking all the way down into my blackness

Looking all the way down into my blackness

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families

Day 240 

I had questions about the staff of DOC.

I had questions about the staff of DOC. I decided to ask my questions to two women sitting at a table in the dayroom. I chose them because they wore the clothing of seasoned felons: faded jeans and tee shirts and tennis shoes from the canteen list. I approached in my shiny blue jeans, my Nobody jeans. “May I ask a question?” One woman with wolf-blue eyes nodded to a stool, I sat. “Do you ever have real conversations with the guards?” 

Do you ever have real conversations with the guards?

“I try not to,” said the second woman called Sinful. “They don’t care about us. There’s a couple who are O.K. But never forget which side they are on. Here’s what they want: no fucking, no fighting, no paperwork. Nothing that keeps them here one minute longer. Most have given up on the idea of corrections. They’ll tell you to quit your whining, go outside and leave them alone.”

 You may have been right, but they will always be righter.” said Blue Eyes. “As an inmate no matter your stage of development or intelligence, YOU WILL OBEY. Best thing you can do is get out of those new-girl clothes,” said Blue Eyes.

“Yeah, you look like a mess,” laughed Sinful.

“Drop a written request for a clothing room call-out, said Blue Eyes. “Tell them you lost your Intake weight.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that right now,” I said. I walked over to the podium and asked the guard on duty for a form. He slid it to me and quickly retracted his hand like he didn’t want to touch me.

Karen Campbell Writes ContactThat night in my cell, I thought about what Sinful and Blue Eyes said about the DOC staff. I wondered what would it be like to work at a prison? They chose to come to a prison day after day. Who among them believes incorrections versus punishment? How many times would it take for an officer to give the inmate a chance, trust just a little bit, stick their neck out, only to get lied to or burned in some way? How many times would it take before it hardened them? What kind of person would they become if the safe career choice, day after day, was mistrust and cynicism?

Not long after, I had a call-out to the clothing room. I could hear laughter and music out in the hallway before I arrived. I walked into a large room with floor to ceiling shelves, stacked with clothing, bedding and shoes. The inmate women workers were seasoned felons, the cool girls. They had control over the shelves of clothing and the power to make or break your visual reputation

The jeans on this girl are too tight

The Sargent in charge was a blonde woman with short hair. She looked athletic but also looked like she enjoyed a scoop of ice cream once in a while. A young pear-shaped woman was standing before her for inspection.

“Smith!” she called to one of the inmate workers. “The jeans on this girl are too tight.” She started laughing. “My God, I can see her butt crack. I do not want to see her butt crack, Smith, ya got me?” The jeans rear seam split her inactive bottom into deflated pouches. She was too young for a butt like that.

“There aren’t any bigger jeans in that length,” answered Smith.

“What are you talking about? I can see some on that shelf right there.”

The clothing room inmate crew looked at each other. “But Good Cop,” said Smith. “She’s too new for faded jeans. She hasn’t earned them yet!” The whole crew laughed. “I need to save them for someone like her,” she nodded to me. Yes, I am cool enough for faded jeans! The Sargent looked at her clipboard.


“Yes ma’am.” She smirked, sat back in her chair and swiveled. “C’mon over here, Baker.” I walked to her desk that was housed in a wire cage that reached to the ceiling, the door was open. “Have a seat.” There was a simple chair next to her desk.

“Tell me something about yourself.”

“I am here for a Man II car accident.”


“Yes. I don’t remember anything about the accident.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing. What else Baker? What do you do in here?”

“I just got a job at DMV.”

“That’s a good job in here but it’s gotta be intense dealing with all those rules and frustrated callers,” her eyes were amused.

We’ve seen her around, Good Cop

“I like the carpet and the soft chair,” I said softly and she laughed.

“You know any of these girls?” she tilted her head to the crew. The crew had gathered around the cage, curious.

“We’ve seen her around, Good Cop,” said a woman with a head of massive auburn curls and a little china doll face, “She’s alright, hasn’t caused any drama.”

“You got kids?” asked Good Cop.

“I do,” my heart tightened. “Two girls, fifteen and eighteen. I really let them down.” I felt safe to continue, so I added, “I think of them all the time. I still have five plus years to go.” The woman with the china doll face snorted like my five years was nothing.

Good cop gave a dismissive nod to the crew, sending them back to work. “Baker, let me give you some advice.” She leaned forward, looking me straight in the eye. “You gotta show those girls that you’re gonna make it. Not just survive in here, but own up to your mistakes. All of them. Make it right with them. Show them you can still learn something in here. Send away for some study books, go to any call-out that helps you out. You are still their mother, Baker.” My eyes began to prick with tears. She waited until I could answer.

“I am writing. I think I am going to write a book. I didn’t have a clue what life was like in here. I even didn’t know if I would get a bra,” I looked out at the clothing room shelves, and dried my eyes.

“Yeah?” she sat up. “Why don’t you bring me some of your work and maybe I can help.”

“O.K.” I squeaked.


“C’mon over here.” said Smith, “What’s your name?”


“Let’s get you out of those ugly jeans,” she said. “We gotta save the good ones for us, don’t we?” I felt like I was asked into the tree fort of older kids. She found two pairs of faded blue jeans and a pair of thin cotton shorts. I was elated. I spun around for Good Cop, she gave me a quick once over and they were mine. I kept them until I paroled.

“I really like it in here,” I said gesturing to the stacks of clothes.

“Look, Baker, I’m doing my time too,” said Good Cop, “I got a ways to go before retirement. I would get bored being mean all the time.” She paused and looked at me seriously, “Here is how we get along, Baker: I will always do my job, it comes first. If you let me do my job, and you do your job, we’re going to get along just fine.” It felt fair, like a respectable boundary.

Good Cop was now in charge of the visiting room

Over the following months, I requested a clothing room call out when I had written something. To her credit, she plowed through those early works and encouraged me to sign up for the Write Around Portland workshop that came into the prison. She gave me hope that I was onto something, something my daughters could be proud of.

Four months later, near the holidays, my youngest daughter, Haley came for a visit. A shift change had occurred and Good Cop was now in charge of the visiting room. Both kind and steady, her presence created an environment that seemed less hostile and allowed a chance for the families to talk and heal. Haley had come for the weekend, that day was her final visit, she would fly out in the morning. We were down to the final hours. She cast aside the trendy clothes that made me think she was doing alright and stripped down to a plain gray hoodie. Her eyes were rimmed in dark circles and she slumped on the table between us. We had run out of easy stories, all that remained was raw emotion and the unspoken hurt that was inconsolable. Haley started to cry at the beginning of the visit and cried all the way through. We leaned forward as far as we could across the table, I ached to hold her and stroke her shiny brown hair. At one point she put the hood over her head and wept. 

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their familiesGood Cop came over with her officer. She made some small talk to get acquainted but was somber and did not overstay our private time. “Sorry Baker, she can’t wear the hoodie.” She actually looked sorry for saying it. Near the end of our visit, I looked over at Good Cop. She and her attending female officer had their heads leaning together, staring at our table. Their faces were anguished, their eyes brimmed with tears. I quickly put that image aside and focused on the final seconds I had with my precious child.

I hugged Haley goodbye, she felt so frail. From my chair, I gave her a tight smile, holding back so her final sight of me would not be her mother falling apart. I watched her stand in the silence of the sally port. She pulled the hoodie back up, over her head but I could see she was crying openly. The exit door opened, she turned, and I watched the back of that crumpled gray hoodie until it was out of sight, just like the final day at the airport when she moved away.

Is your daughter coming back?

The pat-out area beyond the visiting room was quiet after a visit. I walked in silence at the end of the line women, out of the visiting building, toward the cell block. Good cop fell back to talk to me.

“Is your daughter coming back?”

“Not for a few months, she lives in California.”

“Oh. That’s hard.” She was silent for a few steps and then she started to chuckle sadly, “I don’t think I could take another visit, Baker. My God, she just cried and cried. We let her keep her hoodie on for a while, she’s not supposed to wear a hat of any kind but we felt so sorry for her, and with her hood up, we couldn’t see her cry. She killed me. We were a mess.” We both laughed a little, humor our salvation. We entered the block and went our own way. Following the rules, I kept walking toward my unit but I turned for a glimpse of her walk down the corridor in the opposite direction. Her arms hung at her sides, her shoulders slumped, she was looking at the floor and stepping slowly. She sees me. She sees my child.

Years passed, I midway to the top of the pecking order. All my clothes were faded Blues. I had tennis shoes and a canteen brassiere. One day, I saw Good Cop sitting on a bench in the corridor. Next to her was a woman wailing, tearing cheap toilet paper to shreds. Good Cop was crouched forward elbows on her knees, listening. I walked past. She knew I was there, ever vigilant, but her focus remained on the woman and her grief.

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families. Whenever I saw her in the hallways, I would smile, and stand tall. It only takes one of them to see you and your experience becomes a little more bearable.

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families

Good Cop touched many lives of incarcerated women and their families